on 6 January 2008
Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends, Mother Kuster's Trip to Heaven and The Marriage of Maria Braun stand out amongst the very best work of New-German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This collection also includes the films Fear of Fear, Satan's Brew and Chinese Roulette, which for me, don't quite achieve the same cinematic highs as the films aforementioned, but do at least offer a further glimpse into Fassbinder's mind and way of working (whilst simultaneously rounding off what most critics consider to be the peak of his short-career).
This period features many of Fassbinder's most scathing, vicious and emotionally crippling melodramas, many dealing with doomed love and the uncomfortable positions that relationships can put us is; not only with our respective partners, but with the friends and family that surround us. Many of the films also act as social-political attacks on the fabric of German society, post World War II -- taking into account the economic miracle, capitalism, the rise of the left-wing intellectual free-thinker, the Munich Olympic massacre and the rise of the disenchanted arm-chair terrorist. Many of these factors act as a backdrop to the more emotional drama that Fassbinder creates for his tortured characters; with Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Kuster's Trip to Heaven in particular focusing on the negative view that certain factions of society have towards the generation that lived through the rise of the Nazis; while The Marriage of Maria Braun looks at post war decline and the eventual Wirtschaftswunder; here personified by a single-minded and determined young German woman, willing to do anything to ensure a comfortable future for her and her war hero husband.
Much of Fassbinder's work draws heavily on the conventions of Hollywood melodrama, bitterly undercut by the spirit of Godard and the French new wave, and littered with disarming Brecht-ian like alienation techniques, usually involving fragmented compositions, abstract mirror symbolism and layers of sound competing for attention (though here not quite as heavily as his later films, such as In a Year of 13 Moons, Despair, The Third Generation and his segment of Germany in Autumn).
All of these films are worth watching; featuring fantastic performances from Fassbinder's regular stock-company of actors as well as the director himself (he plays the lead role in Fox and His Friends, probably my favourite ever Fassbinder film alongside Mother Kuster's Trip to Heaven and The Third Generation), all coupled with intelligent direction, emotionally-charged writing and the constant sense that the film serves a purpose far greater than that of mindless entertainment. Like all the great filmmakers, from Godard and Bergman to von Trier and Tsukamoto, Fassbinder is using the medium of film to present a series of ideas to his audience, backed by strong characters and an often uncomfortable sense of emotional attachment. Don't let the often cold indifference of his direction or the sniping cynicism of his writing deter you from investing in these characters; bleak though they may be, the films are fiercely intelligent and captivating on an entirely personal level.
The films in this set show Fassbinder's enormous range as a filmmaker, both in terms of his handling of the different character and subject matter, as well as in his use of the basic conventions of filmmaking; cinematography, editing, production design, etc. Fear Eats the Soul is a film that is still largely inspired by Douglas Sirk and shares a similar design to his earliest masterwork The Merchant of Four Seasons; using tight close-ups, long takes and a colourful production design that jars against the bleakness of the story at hand. Elsewhere, Effi Briest is a black and white period drama based on the novel by Theodor Fontane, while The Marriage of Maria Braun explores the post war setting of the later films Lola and Veronika Voss and renders it in a muted pallet of browns and greys and a more complex approach to editing. Then we have films like Fox and His Friends, Mother Kuster's Trip to Heaven and Chinese Roulette, which show Fassbinder moving towards the cold and emotionally fractured Germany of the time depicted in films like the aforementioned In a Year of 13 Moons and The Third Generation.
Although it goes without saying, Fassbinder is not a filmmaker for everyone; many object to his cynicism, the torment of his characters and the spiralling despair central to many of his scripts. However, those with a true passion for intelligent cinema, and for filmmakers like Godard, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Dryer, Ozu, Herzog, von Trier, Wenders, Kieslowski, etc should find much to enjoy here. This box set, as mentioned before, represents something of the peak of Fassbinder's career, and as such, would make a great introduction for anyone interested in the man and his work.